The Nilometer and the deliberate choice of Qur’anic texts

The Nilometer proves to be important in two ways: on the one hand it is technologically interesting, being an instrument built for the measurements of the Nile. On the epigraphic point of view, it is one of the rare monuments about which we have an historical account clearly stating how the Qur’anic inscriptions in it have been selected.

Section from east to west © Creswell Archive
Section from east to west © Creswell Archive

The Nilometer was built in 246 h. (861 A.D.), ordered by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil. It is the oldest structure built after the Arab conquest of Egypt that still survives. The building served a merely utilitarian function: it was used to foresee Nile annual floods and it’s a quite sophisticated instrument on a technological point of view, as it is based on the principle of communicating vessels.

Despite the utilitarian aim, the structure has a number of kufic carved inscriptions, all around the walls. The majority of them are qur’anic. There also was a foundation inscription that stated its foundation under the rule of al-Mutawakkil, but that inscription was eventually removed, probably by the Fatimid Ibn Tulun who restored the building between 258 h. and 259 (872-73 A.D.) and who wanted to affirm his independence from the previous Abbasid dynasty.

Originally the inscriptions, left in the natural stone colour, were set on a blue background. The inscriptions are in a simple Kufic style, without any aestheticism, and they represent the earliest example of monumental epigraphy in Egypt.

Explaining the content of the inscriptions

As for the content of the inscriptions, it is interesting how Ibn Khallikan, in his biographical dictionary, explain how the Qur’anic quotations were deliberately chosen to fit the context of the architecture.

Abu ‘l-Raddad was appointed as keeper of the Nilometer, “with the inspection and direction of every thing connected with it”. In the edition by Ihsan Abbas of Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, we get an idea of the process of decision of the Qur’anic verses:

When I [Abū l-Raddād] wanted to engrave texts on the Nilometer, I consulted Yazīd b. Abdallāh, Sulaymān b. Wahb and al-Hasan the eunuch as to what was most appropriate. I informed them that the most fitting, in my opinion, would be to inscribe verses of the Qurān and the name of the Commander of the Faithful, al-Mutawakkil [r. 232-247⁄847-861], together with that of the governor al-Muntair since he would be responsible for the work. The three disputed about that and Sulaymān b. Wahb, on his own initiative and without our knowing, sought out the opinion of the Commander of the Faithful. The latter then wrote that verses in conformity with the matter of the Nilometer should be inscribed as well as his name. I therefore extracted from the Qurān the verses that best suited this subject and had them engraved wherever possible on the marble on the outside of the structure. The letters, the thickness of a finger, were firmly embedded in the body of the marble and tinted with lapis-lazuli and so could be read from a distance.

Nilometer © Creswell Archive

Thus, the inscriptions chosen for the Nilometer can be seen as having a talismanic function: the water is a gift from God, and without it the mankind cannot survive. The vital power of the water is underlined.

The Nilometer’s inscriptions include:

Q 14:37 (Surat Ibrahim)

Our Lord, I have settled some of my descendants in an uncultivated valley near Your sacred House, our Lord, that they may establish prayer. So make hearts among the people incline toward them and provide for them from the fruits that they might be grateful.

Q 32: 27 (Surat al-Sajda)

Have they not seen that We drive the water to barren land and bring forth thereby crops from which their livestock eat and [they] themselves? Then do they not see?

Q 16:10-11 (Surat al-Nakhl)

It is He who sends down rain from the sky; from it is drink and from it is foliage in which you pasture [animals]. He causes to grow for you thereby the crops, olives, palm trees, grapevines, and from all the fruits. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who give thought.

Q 22:63 (Surat al-Hajj)

Do you not see that Allah has sent down rain from the sky and the earth becomes green? Indeed, Allah is Subtle and Acquainted.

Q 25:50 (Surat al-Furqan)

And We have certainly distributed it [i.e. water] among them that they might be reminded, but most of the people refuse except disbelief.

Q 42:28 (Surat al-Shura)

And it is He who sends down the rain after they had despaired and spreads His mercy. And He is the Protector, the Praiseworthy.

Q 22:5 (Surat al-Hajj)

[…] And you see the earth barren, but when We send down upon it rain, it quivers and swells and grows [something] of every beautiful kind.

Q 50:9 (Surat Qaf)

And We have sent down blessed rain from the sky and made grow thereby gardens and grain from the harvest

It is interesting to note that actually this is one of the rarest example in which a chronicle gives account of the deliberate choice of a Qur’anic inscription. It is possible to explain this rareness. On the one hand, in the majority of cases, the choice of Qur’anic inscriptions could be seen as obvious by contemporaries, thus it was useless to point out something which was fully understood. In the case of the Nilometer, anyway, Ibn Khallikan deems it necessary to underline the choice: the building was quite unique for the time being, and this can be seen a reason why the chronicle decided to underline the choice of the Qur’anic text.

The choice of the Qur’anic text: the decision-making process

On a wider point of view Ibn Khallikan’s account proves that the choice of Qur’anic text is, in some cases at least, strictly connected to the context. It is also interesting no note how the patron himself is said to have opted for the introduction of Qur’anic verses explicitly reminding the importance of water, or better of God, that gives water.

From Ibn Khallikan we understand that the patron decided the general content of what was to be inscribed, then it was the supervisor of the whole project that better defined the inscriptions. Presumably, after the research of the passages was done, the text was approved by the patron. Following these preliminary steps it is plausible to imagine a calligraphist, preparing the text to be inscribed, and a worker (most probably) that was in charge to copy the text on the walls.

All this needs further investigations, but it’s an interesting staring point…


Archnet, “Miqyas”[] (last accessed Sep 21, 2014)

D. Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo, an Introduction, Brill, Leiden – New York 1989, particularly pp. 50-51 [full chapter]

S. Blair and J. Bloom, “Inscriptions in art and architecture”, in J. D. McAuliffe, The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006, pp. 163-178.

R. Hoyland, “Epigraphy”, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Brill, Leiden 2002, vol. II, pp. 25-43.

Ibn Khallikan, Wafayāt al-aʿyān wa-anbāʾ abnāʾ az-zamān (Biographical Dictionary), (trans. M. de Slane, Paris, 1843, IV voll.). Particularly vol. II, p. 75. [full volume]

Ibn Khallikan, Wafayāt al-aʿyān wa-anbāʾ abnāʾ az-zamān (Biographical Dictionary), (trans. Ihsan Abbas, Beirut 1968-1977). Particularly vol. III, pp. 112-113.


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